Mainstream Media Peddles Tired Cannabis Cancer Myth

Mainstream Media Peddles Tired Cannabis Cancer Myth

Wed Jun 06 2012
Keelan Balderson,Contributor
Activist Post

In an extremely deceptive piece in the Independent and several of the UK papers today, The British Lung Foundation have been allowed to peddle a long-debunked myth that smoking cannabis poses a lung cancer risk, going as far as claiming it poses a higher risk than smoking the Government’s cash cow tobacco. This is in stark contrast to easily obtainable scientific evidence that cannabis actually inhibits many cancers, including lung tumors.

Without citing any evidence whatsoever, Dame Helena Shovelton, BLF chief executive is quoted as saying:

Young people in particular are smoking cannabis unaware that each cannabis cigarette they smoke increases their chances of developing lung cancer by as much as an entire packet of 20 tobacco cigarettes.

This is an increase on their previous baseless claim that 3 joints are equal to 20 cigarettes.

Nonetheless, even on the face of it these statements are ridiculous. Unless they’ve been treated with obscene amounts of pesticides, Marijuana buds that are hand rolled by weed smokers are a far-cry from the mass-produced chemical, poison, preservative filled and radioactive packs of cigarettes bought from the shops.

Cannabis simply does not contain the arm-long list of dangerous cancer causing additives that cigarettes do. Dr. Melamede from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, USA, writes that although cannabis smoke and tobacco smoke are chemically very similar, evidence suggests that their effects are very different and that cannabis smoke is less carcinogenic than tobacco smoke [1].

The obvious question to ask is if the BLF’s claims are true where are all the deaths? A widely cited report by the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit states that there are at least 3 million cannabis smokers in the UK [2], and the general consensus is that there are about 9 million tobacco smokers [3].

National mortality statistics note that around 100,000 people die each year from illnesses directly linked to smoking cigarettes [4]. 42,800 are from smoking-related cancers, 30,600 from cardiovascular disease and 29,100 die slowly from emphysema and other chronic lung diseases [5].

So what amount of deaths are linked to smoking cannabis? None!

There are zero reported deaths linked to smoking cannabis each year. While it’s possible there are some here and there, they don’t make any recognized list and are clearly not on the scale of tobacco-related deaths. If there were lots of deaths linked to cannabis, don’t you think the likes of the Independent would have reported such facts in their article? Instead they focus on fear-mongering statements that have no basis in reality.

At one time the Daily Mail ran with the headline Cannabis ‘kills 30,000 a year’, but rather than sourcing the deaths directly, it was simply a math sum of how many pot smokers should be dying each year if cannabis is as bad or worse than tobacco, not that 30,000 were actually proven to be dying each year.

Origins of the Myth

Upon analyzing the BLF’s statement, it turns out that they’re not citing any new scientific studies or any independent research that they’ve conducted themselves. In fact the only new thing the organization did was conduct an opinion poll. As the Independent notes at the beginning of the article:

The UK’s most popular illicit recreational drug is used by more than a third of people under 24, but 88 per cent believe it is less dangerous than tobacco. One in three said it did not harm health …The British Lung Foundation, which commissioned the survey, said the findings were ‘alarming’.

Well just because they found it alarming, doesn’t mean that it is. Despite what lobbyists and Government bureaucrats might claim, the current scientific evidence shows cannabis to be relatively harmless if used recreationally by adults without underlying mental health issues, and a very positive form of pain relief and medicine for many illnesses. Using basic death/hospital statistics, alcohol and tobacco are far more dangerous that pot.

David Nutt, former head drugs adviser, was sacked for making this obvious statement. Professor John Beddington, the Government’s chief scientist backed Nutt, saying the evidence to support the claim was “absolutely clear cut” [6]. Despite these two leading experts stating the self-evident facts, politicians unsurprisingly have taken the hypocritical political route, rather than the scientific one.

So where does the myth come from?

In 2002 the British Lung Foundation released a report entitled A Smoking Gun, that compares the health risks of smoking tobacco to cannabis. Rather than new scientific data, the authors simply interpreted studies already conducted over the years.

The original claim was that 3 cannabis joints equates to 20 cigarettes. Somehow this has now become 1 joint equates to 20 cigarettes, but, regardless, the claim is a crude deception that the BLF themselves are misquoting from their own report.

The data for the erroneous claim is taken from two papers published in 1987 [7], but these papers themselves did not make the claim either. Rather the BLF decided to play scientist and present their own more severe conclusion to the press. As this was reported and exaggerated by the media, and other papers cited the BLF, the myth has spread without anyone bothering to trace back the source material.

The two 1987 studies on which the claim is based examine only a limited range of respiratory illness symptoms, and did not estimate the risks of lung cancer and emphysema.

To reiterate the original study cited by the BLF to back up their claims that cannabis puts you at a higher risk of developing lung cancer, didn’t actually make a conclusion on the link between cannabis and lung cancer!

In its report the BLF use political semantics to brush this glaring flaw under the rug, claiming that there are“conflicting findings” on the link between lung cancer and cannabis, and more research should be undertaken“to establish what link” there is. Given that the data used doesn’t actually cover the main risks, and the link between these major risks is acknowledged to be uncertain by the BLF, it is a miscarriage of science to allow the claim about cannabis and lung cancer to hit the mainstream media. Yet today, almost 10 years later the Independent and BLF spokespeople are still making it.

What Science Says

Believe it or not the studies that have in fact looked at links between cannabis and lung cancer have concluded that there is no link!

Hashibe et al. carried out an epidemiological analysis of marijuana smoking and cancer. A connection was not observed [8]. These conclusions are reinforced by Tashkin et al. who were also unable to demonstrate a cannabis smoke and lung cancer link [9].

Tashkin, a UCLA researcher whose work is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, did a case-control study comparing 1,200 patients with lung, head and neck cancers to a matched group with no cancer. Even the heaviest marijuana smokers had no increased risk of cancer, and strangely actually had less of a risk of cancer than non-smokers.

This is backed up by an earlier 1997 study (obviously ignored by the BLF) by researchers at the Kaiser-Permanente HMO [10]. They followed 65,000 patients for nearly a decade, comparing cancer rates among non-smokers, tobacco smokers, and marijuana smokers. Tobacco smokers had massively higher rates of lung cancer and other cancers. Marijuana smokers who didn’t also use tobacco had no increase in cancer risk, and in fact their rates of lung and most other cancers were slightly lower than non-smokers.

This suggests that far from being more prone than cigarettes to cause lung cancer, cannabis may in fact lower the risk of lung cancer.

Why aren’t these peer-reviewed scientific studies with actual source data cited by the mainstream media?

THC and Cancer

Not only does smoking cannabis possibly protect you from cancer, but Marijuana’s active compound THC and other chemicals within the plant, administered in a variety of other ways has been found to actually kill numerous cancer types directly.

  • Researchers at Harvard University tested the compound with both lab analysis and studies where mice were injected. They found THC cuts tumor growth in common lung cancer in half and significantly reduces the ability of the cancer to spread [11].
  • A 2007 study showed THC’s ability to inhibit aggressive breast cancer cells [12].
  • In 2009 it was revealed that Cannabis cannabinoids have been found to stop prostate cancer cells from growing in the laboratory [13].
  • Research led by Dr Wai Man Liu, at Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and Dentistry, showed that THC has the potential to be used effectively to destroy leukemia cells [14].
  • Similar results have been found with Giloma (brain/spine tumors) [15], and skin cancers using topical application of THC oil [16].


It’s difficult to determine why the UK mainstream media and the British Lung Foundation are so poor at presenting facts regarding cannabis and cancer. An evening on Google with basic discernment about sources will easily turn up a wealth of studies that show the health benefits of Cannabis and the complete lack of a link between smoking the plant and getting lung cancer. Considering the BLF claim to be “working for positive change for the future diagnosis and treatment of lung disease,” you’d think they’d be all over findings that THC cuts lung cancer growth in half.

It could be just a case of mediocrity through bureaucracy. Dame Helena Shovelton who is quoted by the Independent is not a scientist or an expert, she’s a lifelong bureaucrat. Before joining the BLF she was Chair of the UK National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and former Chair of the UK National Lottery Commission. What they have to do with understanding cannabis is anyone’s guess.

This article first appeared at Wide Shut.

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Keelan Balderson is an independent journalist, documentary filmmaker and Internet radio host from the UK. You can listen to his WideShut Webcast every Monday at 8pm GMT on Resistance Radio. Please support his work by visiting his website: You can stay up to date with WideShut using our RSS FeedTwitterFacebook & YouTube


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